How Rethinking the Golf Course Could Help Seniors Age in Place

This 75-acre golf course in San Jose, California, is considered a small course. Even so, it's a colossal public expense. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/davepolaschek/482630827/##Dave Polaschek/Flickr##

The 15,753 golf courses in the United States take up more space than half the state of New Jersey. And though they devour so much land, much of it in suburbia, the sport is foundering — in part because of the enormous amount of time and distance it requires. Some real estate professionals and experts on aging have come together to suggest a solution both for the decline of the game and the land use problems posed by these massive courses: Build mixed-use development inside them.

“The simultaneous collapse in the value of homes and golf courses may make such suburban redevelopment, retrofitting, and regreening possible on an unprecedented scale,” wrote Jane Hickie of the Stanford Center on Longevity and James F. Dausch and Edward Bennett Vinson of Resolutions Real Estate Advisors in an article last month for the American Artchitectural Foundation. “Redevelopment could provide solutions for the financial problems that many homeowners associations and golf course operators are struggling to address through infill housing and retail more suitable for an older population.”

Hickie has written a book on independent living for seniors, and she knows that most seniors live in suburbia and want to stay in their own communities as they age. So here’s the challenge she laid out: “How do you transform suburbia quickly enough to deal with the coming tsunami of population change?” Repurposing golf courses, she says, could play an important role.

Many residential developments, often targeted at retirees, have grown up around golf courses, charging a premium to be near the course. But with the collapse of housing prices, especially in the drivable suburbs, and the decline in the game, homeowners’ associations are often left holding the bag for astronomical maintenance costs. By bringing retail, dining, office space, and other recreational opportunities to golf courses, Hickie suggests, developers could buoy home values and help pay for the costs of the land. These amenities could also attract a different demographic, whether or not they’re interested in golf, and the new residents could be accommodated in denser housing in the town center.

Separately, Hall of Fame golfer Tom Kite has also entertained the idea of shrinking golf courses. He’s speculated that the size of the courses may have become the sport’s Achilles heel. It can take upwards of five hours to finish 18 holes, and fewer and fewer people have that much time on their hands.

The size of golf courses actually works against active lifestyles for seniors. Golf could be a game that involves a lot of walking, but the vast distance even between the last green and the next tee box has led most people to drive carts between holes, rather than get exercise. “Carts are used because of bad golf course design,” Hickie said. “Because it takes so long to play; it’s a way to speed it up. What is does is to allow people not to walk.”

Hickie said that when golf originated in Scotland, courses were located along walkways so that people could play a few holes on their way into town. “They were not in isolated, gated communities designed only for elites,” she said. “They were a way the whole community could get recreation.”

By shrinking courses to make them walkable and adding compact town centers, golf course communities could become far healthier places for the seniors that live in them.

In an article in the Orange County Register last spring, real estate consultant Mark Boud envisioned just what Hickie, Vinson, and Dausch are proposing. “Golf was so dramatically overbuilt in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that I believe we’ll continue to see a conversion of older public courses to residential,” Boud said.

Hickie said she and her team of real estate developers and entrepreneurs have approached the PGA with the idea and are planning to follow up next week. She said before going to people interested in aging or in sustainable communities, she wants people who love the game of golf to get on board so that they see her plan to shrink course size is not a threat to the game but a way to save it. (In fact, she told Streetsblog, Hickie and her co-authors come at the problem not just from an interest in land use but a love of golf. “It isn’t good for the game of golf to have abandoned courses,” she said.) From there, she hopes the “wellness insurance” world will be interested – companies like Humana and Kaiser that have taken a major interest in prevention and overall health.

She hopes developers and residents of golf course communities will be receptive. “It’s a real opportunity to talk with people about how they want their communities to be, going forward,” Hickie said. “Because people are going to be very afraid that this kind of proposal would affect the value of their investment — and yet they know that, with the collapse of housing values and the enormous price of maintenance of these golf courses, that they need to do something different.”

  • Jake Wegmann

    I love it. This is the kind of creative but hard-headed realistic thinking that will need to occur if suburban retrofitting is to progress from being a buzzphrase to being something real.

  • This article touches on something that people have known for some time.  Not everyone who buys in a golf community actually golfs.  With the downturn in the economy and aging of the boomer population, finding alternative uses for golf courses and the surrounding areas is a great idea.  

  • Clutch J

    Love it! Half my golf these days is done by bicycling w/clubs to the local nine-hole. I could absolutely see myself retiring in a bike- and golf-friendly development (with carshare).

  • Chance

    As a golfer, I do not agree that there are too many golf courses because part of the reason that golf takes 5 hours to finish is because of the all the people trying to play.  Golf course are probably too big though, which is why I usually ride a cart.  

    Perhaps if golf courses could be built with 9-15 regulation length holes and the remaining space turned into retail and other recreation, then that would be something I would really enjoy, more so then the 18 holes I play now.  If you want to play 18 holes, then replay for course again 😀

    Is there an artist rendering of what something like this would look like?  I am curious how the architects plan to protect business and their customers from hacks, as I have hit a few single family homes in my time and would hate to imagine what my slices would do to a restaurant’s patio with all its customers.

  • Syzlak

    For a couple years now I’ve felt that golf courses and cemeteries should be made more open to the public, if not partially or entirely converted into public parks.

  • Davistrain

    My dentist’s office magazine rack usually has a publication on “Places for Retirement”, which I sometimes read for amusement, being retired quite happily in the San Gabriel Valley.  One of the factors often mentioned in extolling a retirement location is the number of golf courses.  Although I’m a white male senior citizen, “cow pasture pool” has absolutely no attraction for me.  Live music, theater, museums and railroad activity are what I would look for. 

  • Anonymous

    I’d fiercely oppose such conversions. If a golf course no longer has use, converting it to some privately-maintained and access-controlled park is a much better proposition (involving, obviously, the replacement of green irrigated grass with something else). One of the problems of parks is that they are often dangerous for younger kids to go there alone, or even people concerned with the thieves, rapists and drug users. If they could keep the area of the golf course as a park where only residents could hang out, or maybe operating on a membership-basis (with vetting to exclude those with records of disorderly conduct, people on sex offender registry etc), it would be a great thing. 

  • Jerard Wright

    Great routine by George Carlin on this subject;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbSRCjG-VLk

  • Linda Hunt

    I live in a small metropolitan area (Spokane City and County – population under 500,000) with several golf courses. I have to think about if and how the golf courses here fit the case being made in this article. I always appreciate new ways of looking at things! Thank you.

  • I agree, some smart thinking out of the box is sometimes neeeded and this is a great example. I live in a golf community and now that we are getting older and moving to fixed income, sometimes people who are in golf communities cant even afford to join the club that is in their area, so this is a great idea.

  • spiraldates

    Older non-profitable golf courses should just be turned into Tiny House parks. No need to put in any infrastructure – there are already cart paths and carts for transport and irrigation pipes for water. Electricity would be cheap to put in or they could just use solar panels. Instant low cost housing.